Social security: benefit take-up strategy

This take-up strategy is the first to be published under the provision of the Social Security (Scotland) Act.

Chapter 1: Removing Social Barriers to Access

To remove social barriers to take-up we will:

  • Take a user-centred approach to policy development, service design and delivery.
  • Involve people who have experience of the social security system at every stage through user research, and engage with the Experience Panels.
  • Build an approachable system based on dignity and respect, encouraging clients to engage.
  • Carry out targeted research and engagement with those who have protected characteristics, as well as other seldom-heard groups, to ensure that benefits are designed and delivered in ways which work for Scotland’s diverse population.
  • Use client insights to identify gaps in take-up, and continuing to work with people within particular communities to ensure gaps are addressed.
  • Hold two roundtable events – co-designed with organisations who support disabled people and those on low incomes.

Social barriers to take-up are many and varied, and include: (perceived) stigma, subjective lack of need, people in vulnerable situations, pride, or lack of trust in institutions. In order to remove these barriers we have worked closely with people who have experience of social security in the development of the devolved benefits. This chapter outlines that work, and highlights some of the outcomes and initiatives which are being delivered to overcome such social barriers as a result.

A User-Centred Approach – Experience Panels

It would not be possible to increase the take-up of benefits without working closely with those who are eligible, to design a system that is accessible to them. Analytical work to date has focused on two key issues: making social security research as accessible and inclusive as possible to participants from every part of Scottish society, and undertaking research with those people to ensure that the Scottish social security system meets the needs of its clients. This includes finding out how to make people aware of the benefits they are entitled to and how to make it easy for people to apply.

The Social Security Experience Panels are the main mechanism for user engagement in the design of the Scottish social security system. In 2017 over 2,400 people with lived experience of the benefits coming to Scotland registered as Experience Panel members. We worked hard, with support from a wide range of third sector organisations, to get the message about the Experience Panels spread far and wide, and to ensure that registering as a panel member was accessible, especially to disabled people and people with English as a second language.

Experience Panels Demographics:

  • Over 80% of panel members have one or more disabilities or long term health conditions
  • Half have caring responsibilities (for disabled adults/children or someone in old age)
  • There are slightly more women than men, and there are more people from older age groups than younger - as is common in research of this kind.
  • 2% say they are from ethnic minorities
  • 9% say they are lesbian, gay or bisexual
  • Fewer than 10 respondents identified as transgender.

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In July 2019 recruitment to the Experience Panels was reopened, and we have been working with relevant stakeholders to specifically target young people, ethnic minorities, and people in remote and rural areas.

A large programme of research with Experience Panel members ensures that social security in Scotland is shaped by the views, needs and experiences of those who will be using it. The aim is to draw on this lived experience to build a system that maximises take-up and delivers a service based on dignity, fairness and respect in line with the social security principles.

The Experience Panels research, and wider user research, is building up a detailed evidence base on the three key barriers to uptake that this strategy identifies.

Protected Characteristics and Seldom-Heard Groups

The Experience Panels have been involved in a range of workstreams relating to Equalities Act 2010 protected characteristics[5] and other seldom-heard groups. In part, this work has sought to understand the social barriers to accessing social security.


Disability is one of the most relevant protected characteristics for social security, because of the nature of the benefits coming to Scotland. We have worked hard to make participation accessible, including making sure panel members can take part in surveys online (in a dyslexia friendly format that is compatible with screen readers), over the phone or on paper. We also do everything we can to make face-to-face sessions with panel members accessible, not just to people using wheelchairs but to people with sensory impairments, mobility issues, fatigue and so on. Furthermore, our research explores how to make the system accessible to everyone – for example in our work on Social Security Scotland buildings, opening hours, and local delivery (latter report pending).


We are aware of the particular barriers faced by ethnic minorities, especially those with English as a second language. To address this, work has run with ethnic minorities alongside the main Experience Panels – with over 150 people participating in focus groups to date. This work has also given us a depth of information about the barriers faced by this group, and ideas for how Social Security Scotland can address these barriers. We will report on this research in the coming months. This work has been feeding directly into the development of interpretation and translation services for Social Security Scotland, and will continue to inform work on take-up.


A separate Young Carer Panel was convened to inform the new Young Carer Grant – with over 50 young carers participating in focus groups, and over 60 in a survey. This work shaped the design of the new benefit.[6]

Sensitive, marginalised and dispersed groups

As outlined above, we have good representation on the Experience Panels across people with protected characteristics. However, we have also been aware from the outset that for some more sensitive, marginalised and dispersed groups, targeted research is required beyond the main Experience Panels. We have developed a programme of research with these groups, with an emphasis on take-up, to ensure that these voices are also informing the design of Social Security in Scotland. These groups are:

  • Gypsy/Traveller communities
  • low skilled migrant workers
  • refugees
  • care experienced people
  • kinship and foster carers
  • adoptive parents
  • single parents
  • young parents
  • people with experience of homelessness
  • people who have offended, including prisoners and people who have been released from prison and their families
  • people affected by HIV and hepatitis
  • veterans
  • people fleeing domestic abuse/ coercive relationships
  • survivors of abuse
  • people with terminal illnesses
  • bereaved families including parents

This qualitative research has begun and will run over two years. As with the wider Experience Panels work, this will allow people's direct lived experience to inform the detail of the design of social security in Scotland, to ensure these groups can access the system and will be treated with dignity, fairness and respect.

Transition from Experience Panels to Client Insights research

To date, the Experience Panels have been the main source of information on users' overarching views on the benefits system. People who become clients of Social Security Scotland will also be asked how that experience has been for them, via a Client Insights research programme. As the Social Security Scotland client base and in turn the research programme grows, it will be possible to look at (for example) clients' experience ratings against application outcomes to identifying any possible barriers to uptake, and delve deeper into these issues with focus groups and interviews.

Client insights already show high levels of satisfaction at point of contact with the services provided by Social Security Scotland. From September 2018 to 31 March 2019 - of those who left a rating 97% of online applicants rated the service as Very good or Good, whilst for telephony applicants, 100% of those who left a rating rated the service as Very good or Good.

As with all insights research, results from this programme will be fed into ongoing service design and will support improvements to the service. It will also provide a main source of data for measuring our Charter commitments.

Figure 1 Community Engagement Experts

Benefit Take-up Community Engagement Experts

Social Security Scotland will continue to work with experts who have experience of benefit take-up in specific communities e.g. care leavers or BME women.

The purpose will be to monitor management information to effectively target take-up activity, produce take-up resources for Social Security Scotland staff and stakeholders, and to liaise with and support stakeholders and frontline staff with take-up activities. Our specific approach will draw on best practice from take-up initiatives and campaigns undertaken across Scotland and elsewhere in the UK (Child Poverty Unit 2009; Employability Scotland 2019; KPMG 2010).

User-centred outcomes

As part of our commitment to improving the benefits being devolved, we have applied the learning gained through this user-centred approach to institute a number of positive evidence-based changes.

Policy Design

The take-up of Scottish benefits has been integral to the policy design of the devolved payments. This 'nuts and bolts' approach, has ensured that each of the devolved benefits has been developed with simplicity of access for diverse populations firmly at its heart.

Best Start Grant

The Best Start Grant policy and delivery mechanisms have been designed to create a simple accessible benefit, with minimal barriers to access, maximising take-up for families on low incomes. A number of key changes have expanded provision significantly, when compared with Sure Start Maternity Grant, reaching people in in-work poverty or fragile work, workless households, larger families and a very high proportion of lone parents.

A key area of consideration regarding the take-up of Best Start Grant has been the time-frames within which clients may apply for each payment. Applications must be made within particular time windows, relating to the age of the eligible child, and, following extensive engagement with users and stakeholders, these were set so as to maximise clients' opportunity to access the benefit. Best Start Grant's long application windows reduce complexity for clients, and give ample time to engage with available information and, where necessary, access support to apply – particularly where circumstances are complicated.

Best Start Grant application windows

  • Pregnancy and Baby payment: applications can be made from the 24th week of pregnancy up to the day a baby is 6 months old. This is extended to the child’s first birthday if the applicant has taken over responsibility for a child, such as if they have adopted.
  • The Early Learning Payment (£250 for each eligible child): is made to eligible applicants where their child is aged between 2 years old and 3 years 6 months old to support child development, and to capture the common ages for starting nursery.
  • The School Age Payment (£250 for each eligible child): Eligibility is based on the child’s age relating to when they are first old enough to start school – usually between the ages of 4.5 and 5.5 years old.

To accommodate children's different developmental needs, there is no requirement to enrol in nursery or school to receive these new payments. This also ensures that non-enrolment is not a barrier to take-up.

To further widen eligibility – following evidence that a small number of births each year were to mothers under 18 with no recourse to public funds – we have forged an agreement with the UK Home Office that Best Start Grant will not be added to the list of restricted funds. As there is no requirement for under 18s to be on a qualifying benefit to be eligible for Best Start Grant, this potentially vulnerable young group of parents are not excluded from applying.

Funeral Support Payment

Following stakeholder engagement we implemented eligibility changes that will see around 40% more people eligible for financial support at the point of bereavement, as compared to the prior DWP benefit. The improved transparency around the new assessment process also helps people understand if they are entitled to support before applying, and the published information on how the award is calculated will also help people understand what any award would likely be.

The "Planning Your Own Funeral" leaflet which was originally published on 8 August 2017 has been updated to include information on the new Funeral Support Payment benefit, and to update the details of some resources, links and contacts. Copies were sent to NHS Health boards/hospitals, local authorities, and CAB offices with a notification of the availability of the leaflet online too. The leaflet gives people information to help them plan for their own funeral and so reduce uncertainty, both financially and practically, at such a sensitive time. It is designed to encourage people to start thinking about their wishes, the associated costs and how they plan to pay for it. It also encourages them to record their wishes and share them with their families and friends.

The introduction of the Funeral Support Payment means that around 40% more people are eligible for financial support at the point of bereavement, when compared with the DWP’s Funeral Expense Payment

Disability Assistance

We have made a series of commitments to ensure that all three Disability Assistance benefits have the needs of disabled people at their heart, and support take-up by expanding eligibility, and reducing the administrative burden on the client. These include:

  • The extension of eligibility for Disability Assistance for Children and Young People from age 16 to age 18. This will reduce pressure on families as young people transition into adult services and maintain existing eligibility and payments.
  • Social Security Scotland will take a supportive role in the collection of additional information for applications. The Agency will be pro-active in collecting additional information, provide clear guidance on what information is helpful, be open and transparent about what information is needed, and use existing information where available.

Our approach towards reviews will be "light-touch" ensuring the review is supportive, person-centred and will minimise stress and anxiety. "Light-touch" reviews will be carried out by Social Security Scotland without having to see the person in the majority of cases.

Given that Experience Panels have regularly talked about the fear of the arrival of the 'brown envelope', it is hoped that these, and the other commitments made in the development of Disability Assistance, will improve clients' experience of the social security system.

Specific user groups and service design sensitivities

Young People

Young people are the primary demographic for Young Carer Grant. User research showed that this group expect regular updates on the progress of their application in a digital form. For all benefits, we offer an SMS notification on receipt of an application, and from the implementation of Young Carer Grant, we will also offer email notifications. The integration of SMS notifications also works for paper form users, who have told us in user research that it stops them from worrying that their application has disappeared into a "black hole".

Young people generally have less experience and confidence completing 'official' forms, and therefore have a need for more reassurance. However, they have told us in user research that they have a lack of comfort with telephone communication. As a result, this group have requested audio or video content explaining the pre-application information. This would have the advantage of allowing us to display both visuals and a BSL interpreter, which increases accessibility for all citizens, and forms part of our inclusive communications strategy. To make sure we have time to get this right, it will be available after the benefit launches.

Parents whose babies have died

In researching Sure Start Maternity Grant provision, we found that there was very low uptake of the grant by parents who had experienced baby loss. Parents who had a stillbirth or neonatal death were eligible, however they struggled to see their situations reflected in the information about the benefit, or the application form itself. It was sectioned off, and hard to find. Parents told us that they needed to feel as though they had 'permission' to claim the benefit, and to be reminded that they could spend the grant on things that were appropriate to their situation.

In line with our commitment to deliver with the utmost respect for clients' dignity, we made this information clear in the supporting content for the application form, and reassured applicants that they wouldn't need to pay the money back after a loss (see text below).

Text taken from Supporting Content to Best Start Grant application

"You can still get the Pregnancy and Baby Payment part of Best Start Grant for a baby that's stillborn or died after they were born. If you're paid when you're pregnant, and your baby is stillborn or dies later, you will not need to pay any money back. If you apply after a stillbirth or death, you can apply up to 6 months after the baby's birth date."

People with English as a Second Language

Research with users who have English as a second language showed that there is often an assumption around the most commonly translated languages. There is an expectation that Social Security Scotland is mirroring provision by other public sector organisations, and speakers of less common languages have told us that they will generally opt for letters in English, on the assumption that there are no materials available in their native language. This removes individual agency, forcing some applicants to rely on support to apply, and creating a barrier to take-up.

To address this, we worked with clients to refine the way we talk about and allow selection of a preferred language, emphasising the wide range of languages, and naming the most frequently spoken (see text below).

Text taken from Supporting Content to Best Start Grant application

"If you do not want a call or letter in English, you can ask us to contact you in over 100 languages".

Overcoming Stigma

The impact of stigma was explored as part of the work to develop Our Charter. The Charter was co-designed with a group of people with lived experience of social security. This group included a range of people with protected characteristics. Our Charter contains explicit commitments for Social Security Scotland and the Scottish Government to work to reduce the stigma associated with receiving benefits in Scottish society.[7] We are doing this in a number of ways.

Best Start Foods: Payment Card

The new Best Start Foods payment launched on 12 August 2019, and replaced the UK Government's Healthy Start paper vouchers with a new payment card that works in a similar way to a normal bank card. This change in the form of payment was driven by user research findings, with the direct aim of reducing the stigma associated with the previous vouchers and therefore increase take-up of Best Start Foods.

Scottish Child Payment

The Scottish Child Payment will be a new benefit designed to help support families on low incomes and tackle child poverty – both issues which we know can have a significant and negative impact on individuals and families, and cause undue stigma.

Throughout the continued policy development of the payment, we have been undertaking detailed user research, engaging directly with people who may receive it to determine how they feel advice and support can best be tailored to their circumstances, and how we can reduce or remove any feelings of stigma. This has included where clients feel information on the benefit could best be shared to make them aware of it, in a setting where they feel comfortable, and how we can make guidance and applications straightforward. The policy decision not to impose any cap on the number of eligible children that a family can receive the payment for was taken to ensure the payment has the widest possible impact, but also to challenge the UK Government's stigmatising two child limit for Universal Credit and Tax Credits.

We will continue to develop and refine the policy, ensuring that we are led by user research, to deliver a payment that minimises stigma and encourages take-up.

Figure 2 National Conference - Access to Social Security

Round Table Events

To explore issues relating to the delivery and take-up of Scottish benefits we will hold two round table events in 2020:

  • On access to Disability Assistance
  • On access to Scottish low-income benefits (including the Scottish Child Payment)

Both events will be co-designed with organisations who support the take-up of benefits – and will be fully accessible to people with experience of the system

Overcoming stigma will form a central strand of discussion, with other potential themes including: other barriers to take-up; how to reach seldom-heard groups; equality of access; dignity, fairness and respect; and a human rights-based approach.

Bringing the experience and expertise of practitioners into dialogue with that of clients will give an opportunity to align the two in productive ways, and to reaffirm Ministers’ commitment to evidence-based policy-making.



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